Raspberry Jam, Tea and creaming down
Canton Tea Club Week 62: Itakhooli RJ Special
Assam tea, Cream and Raspberry Jam – things aren’t the way they used to be.
This week, I’ve chosen Itakhooli RJ Special for the Tea Club because it encapsulates so much of what I think is great about Assam Tea, and how much has been lost over the years. Assam today is known much more for consistency than variety, and I miss the old seasonal quality peaks and individual flavours. We’re talking about cream and raspberry jam.
When I was training as a tea buyer in London in the 1980s the first of the new season samples from Assam would arrive in early September. These samples were always tasted on a Tuesday morning following the weekly auction, as they were the most prized. We would work our way through perhaps two hundred teas, and select the best for a second tasting. The normal relentless cycle of tasting and clearing the pots and bowls would then be interrupted, and the infused teas left to cool for an hour or two, so that we could see how they ‘creamed down’. Creaming down is caused by the reaction of two important components in tea, caffeine and theaflavin. The amount of cream is linked to how much of these are in the leaf, and the strength of the infusion. The seasonal nature of Assam tea, with the concentration of flavour compounds in the ‘second flush’ leaves, combined with fine plucking and careful manufacture, mean that fine Assam teas cream down more than any other teas. Try it yourself: I personally haven’t managed to get the same result even with fine China black teas.
It’s much rarer to see teas creaming down this way than it was in the 1980s. Why is this? I think it is linked to the way Assam tea is produced, with the old quality spike at the end of May being replaced with a smoother more sustained quality hump through June and even into July. This makes sense for producers and big blending companies, but I think something important has been lost. Last week’s Attabarrie and this week’s Itakhooli were made in the old way – specific bushes, finely picked at their quality peak and carefully manufactured. They are not commercial for the factories and very much a labour of love for the managers.
This brings us nicely to Itakhooli.
On my trip to Assam in 2011 I stayed at Itakhooli with Bikash Kundu, the Garden Manager. I’ve known Bikash for a while, and we got chatting about the old days. The conversation came round to the loss of individual flavours in Assam teas, and how much I missed the ‘RJ character’ that was a signature for certain gardens. RJ refers to raspberry jam, and the flavour comes only from a particular old clonal variety called Keyhung 1, or K1. This variety was widely planted in the South Bank region of Assam, but had modest yields and was difficult to prune, and it has been largely replaced by other varieties over the years. This is another factor in the smoothing out of quality in Assam, with almost all teas picked from a ‘blend’ of different bush varieties and losing their individual character. Again, good commercial sense, but a shame nonetheless.
Then Bikash said quietly “we still have some here”. This was very exciting for both of us. Bikash is as enthusiastic as I am for the individual flavours of different Assam varieties, but his job is to produce teas in bulk, with a consistent flavour profile. He does this very well, and Itakhooli is a very successful garden, but I could tell that he was asking himself the same question as I was: “would it be possible to make a pure K1, and what would it taste like?”
This week’s tea is the result. The RJ character is not as strong as I remember it, which is probably to do with age – the bushes and mine. I think the flavour has grown in my memory over the years, but it was stronger back then. I know this because a respected former boss hated the taste and would not let me buy from any gardens that were known to have the RJ character. I still did though.
I hope you enjoy this tea as much as I do.